Food Safety Measure Would Give Small Farmers Indigestion

As millions across the country prepared for their annual Thanksgiving feast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was busy taking shots at Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) over food safety, claiming in a letter from a Reid spokesman that Coburn, a physician who has delivered more than 4,000 babies, doesn't care if children get sick.

Coburn is offering amendments to, and opposing the current form of, Senate Bill 510, the so-called "Food Safety Modernization Act."

According to Coburn's camp, this bill, which could come to a vote as early as next week and which is being heavily pushed by Reid and the lame-duck congress, would do nothing to alleviate the few problems there are with food safety in the United States. The U.S. has less than 34 cases of food-borne illness per 100,000 people, and the bill would simply add burdensome regulations and give federal bureaucrats TSA-like authority to do whatever they felt was necessary to "secure the food chain" with little recourse for consumers or producers.

Coburn says the legislation would merely add hundreds of pages of new regulations and more than a billion dollars in spending without doing anything to improve what is already the safest food supply in the world.

In the letter, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said:

In Senator Coburn’s world, children who get sick and even die from eating unsafe food are less important than petty political posturing -- and instead of standing up for these kids, Senate Republicans have rewarded Senator Coburn by electing him part of their leadership.

Coburn communications director John Hart said the accusations were ridiculous.

"I think it's hard to argue that someone who's been a practicing physician doesn't take children's health seriously," Hart said. "It's disappointing that some in Congress don't want to debate substantive legislation and have to resort to personal attacks."

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control, no more than three-thousandths of one percent of food-borne illnesses are fatal in the United States.

In an address to the Senate on the amendments he is offering to the bill, Coburn noted the safety of the food supply in the U.S. as well:

We could spend $100 billion additionally every year and not make food absolutely safe. There are diminishing returns to the dollars we spend. But if you look at what the case is: In 1996, for every 100,000 people in this country, we had 51.2 cases of food-borne illness -- the best in the world, by far. Nobody comes close to us in terms of the safety of our food . But, in 2009, we only had 34.8 cases -- three times better than anybody else in the world. So the question has to be asked: Why are we doing this now when, in fact, we are on a trendline to markedly decrease it? The second question that should be asked is: No matter how much money we spend, is there a diminishing return?

Indeed, the legislation as currently extant would force small farmers who sell more than $500,000 worth of produce a year to meet the same regulations as larger factory farms. This category would, for instance, include Amish cooperatives which mostly sell at farmers' markets and to restaurants.

According to Hart, the proposed legislation would cost $1.4 billion, a number backed up by the CBO.

Most worrisome is the fact the bill as it currently is written would give the FDA the authority to require mandatory recalls of tainted food.

At first blush this seems reasonable, but the current system of voluntary recalls already resulted in a $100 million loss to tomato growers in the U.S. when a salmonella outbreak caused the FDA to recommend a recall. It turned out the problem was not tomatoes but jalapeno peppers, but by the time the real culprit was discovered the damage was already done.

Hart points out that bureaucrats with the power to order recalls would be very likely to jump the gun and order a huge recall before all the facts are in. Worse, it would precipitate a fight between the industry and regulators, who currently have a fairly good working relationship.